You might call Chris Nielsen an artisan. His company, Electric Cab of Austin, actually makes things. And as good a tinkerer as he might be, his goal is to shake up Austin’s urban transportation market. That means everything from how you flag down a pedicab to the type of bus you’ll board in 2020.
“We have strong relationships with local businesses and local government decision-makers, which has helped us play an influential role in the definition and development of new ordinances related to sustainable transportation in multiple areas of public policy,” said Nielsen.
To get a sense of the opportunity, beyond rides back to your house from H.E.B., (though he’ll do that too) The World Economic Forum has a startling data point. We’ll need to build the same urban capacity (housing, infrastructure and facilities) in the next 40 years that we’ve built over the past 4,000 years to meet the demand of urbanization. That’s where Nielsen’s vision for electrification becomes more intriguing.
For starters, utilities and city leadership are being pressed on innovation and need solutions for improved infrastructure. Digitizing the electrical grid, improving traffic congestion and reducing pollution are necessities as cities and towns vie for the quality of life spotlight.
Nielsen says he’s approached Capital Metro with a turnkey package that includes his Low-Speed Vehicle (LSV) designs and drivers at a lower hourly rate.
A number of transportation groups across the country have already pulled the trigger on similar projects. One example, covered in Scientific American, looked at scenarios in Washington State and California. Washington’s LINK system mentioned a big piece of the upside.
“It is no wonder LINK is still bullish on the endeavor: Pezoldt says a comparable diesel-powered trolley would cost about $435,000 and each electric trolley built by Downey, Calif.–based Ebus costs significantly less at $370,000. On top of that, diesel fuel for the same trolley on the same route runs about $1,200 per month, whereas the inexpensive and green hydropowered electricity used for the Ebus trolley comes in at approximately $100 per month—less than one tenth the cost.”
While Electric Cab’s Low Speed Electric Vehicles (LSVs) have been fully permitted since January 2012 for Austin’s Low Speed Vehicles for Hire Ordinance, there’s more to the model than just moving tourists from hotel lobbies to hot spot bars. They want to kill gas-fed routes that originate from all sorts of businesses and government entities. School campuses, prisons, retirement communities and a host of others come to mind.
But that’s the bigger picture. The nice thing for potential investors is the fact that Electric Cab already operates at full speed (OK, half speed until additional funding) with some key alliances in the works. The current model has two components. The first one targets short-range fares, which Nielsen says are often denied by cab drivers. The other segment is the pedicab market, which has its own challenges when it comes to longer routes and safety issues. The company generates revenue by leasing vehicles to drivers for a flat fee, selling on-vehicle display advertising, and by delivering customers to commercial businesses, much like a mobile concierge.
Nielsen wants the additional capital to expand his clean fleet to 25 LSVs. He says each LSV is roughly $9,500, and has an earning potential of $3,500 per month. And returns can be quick, with some units paying for themselves within the first 7 to 10 months under normal circumstances. Just as notable, the maintenance associated with LSV’s is usually very low, while their lifespans are lengthy. According to his figures, an LSV can net an investor more than $40,000 over a 4-year period.
Strategic partners are key as well. The company is in talks with Pflugerville’s Community Cars, a company now run by Austin attorney Stacy Zoern after it merged with Hungary-based Kenguru Services KFT in early 2011. Zoern’s industry knowledge and the need for additional manufacturing and supply chain expertise has both companies eager to explore joint opportunities.
A few other things might also play out in its favor. Austin Energy has significant grant funding to deploy an electric vehicle charging grid, which could expand rapidly as other regional developments take shape. Pecan Street’s visibility doesn’t hurt either. They’re also exploring a partnership with Formula One to help it utilize large passenger EVs for logistical support and passenger transportation. Apparently, there’s different seating configurations to allow fans to move around the track for the best views.
But perhaps most indicative of its broad appeal, the company is currently working with the Texas Senior Mobility Project to provide alternate modes of transportation. Electric Cab says Capital Metro has decreased service to that demographic and says its newly available ADA compliant shuttle bus would be the perfect for senior citizens.
I may be a bit biased, but the more I learned about Electric Cab’s business, the more I was intrigued. Whatever the case, with fossil fuel subsidies losing favor, gas prices consistently rising, and more pressure on cities to reduce carbon emissions, what’s not to like about cleaner and more affordable transportation? And besides, we all know another website isn’t going to solve the world’s problems.